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The best way to practice realistic rolling is to go over in real environments, even on the flat

Rolling rolling rolling, keep ’em wagons rolling… Right, rolling. It’s hard. How can we make it better?

How to improve the roll is possibly one of the most asked questions in white water kayaking. When I went through a long period of my roll being flat out hopeless it was the most frustrating thing I have ever come across in any activity I have ever taken part in! It’s utterly demoralising, especially when you see others all around you who seem to roll naturally, or who have lungs of steel and manage to hold in there for what seems like 100 attempts, while you pull the deck after a measly single try!

Yep, kayak rolling can be very frustrating. It requires complex physical coordination, a feel for your surroundings, and timing, all the while being subject to the countdown timer that is your lung’s air supply! Yet the whole motion is performed smoothly and is simplistic to look at. Why is it so hard?

What brings you back up?

When I made a concerted effort to get to the bottom of what the hell was going on with my roll I discovered a few things. One of them was that most of the tips given for improving the roll were based on dogmatic teachings that didn’t truly address the real cause of the problems. The second was that we shouldn’t get hung up on ideas such as the C to C roll or sweep roll as an end. Instead such rolls should be viewed as techniques that allow you to try and understand what is really bringing the boat back up. The third was that there is simply no substitute for practice. The fourth is trust. The fifth is crunch.

However, if you don’t have a good grasp of the mechanics of what really brings your boat up, it is difficult to put any focus into your practice. On the other hand if you know what you are supposed to be doing, even if you can’t do it yet, you can at least keep practicing and make that gradual transition into actually performing the movements you intend to be doing.

Trust, young Padawan

Now, about that fourth point, trust. What do I mean? Rolls often fail because we revert to what our instinct wants us to do. Trying to lift our head out of the water or wrenching down on the paddle. It simply doesn’t seem right that the motion we should be doing is going to bring the boat back up. So we simply say in our heads “f**k it!” and do what our instinct tells us to do.

But bring the boat back up the proper motion does. Both the C to C and the sweep roll are two slightly different methods to achieve exactly the same thing. And I’m not referring to rolling the boat up when I say that by the way. I’m referring to the muscles around your waist, which will contract (hence crunch) on one side. And because your torso is buoyant, this means that since your bottom half is hopefully attached to the rest of your body, the knee which is on the side of the boat that the crunch is being done will have no choice but to apply pressure to the hull on that side and roll it back up.

The sweep roll achieves this in one smooth constant motion, while the traditional C to C does it in a more isolated way. Either of those roll style movements makes you ‘crunch’ your waist (oblique) muscles at the side of your body. It is these that provide the majority of the power for the much talked about ‘hip flick’ or uselessly defined ‘lifting of the knee’. But the key thing is, none of these rolls have to be performed quickly to work. They can both be done verrrrrrrrrrrry sleeeeooooowwwlllllllllyyyy if you want, and they will still work with the right technique and motions applied.

Stop trying to roll

And yet I see a lot of people who seemingly find it impossible to trust the proper movements of the roll to bring them back up. They aren’t doing this on purpose. It’s just a mind lock, and they end up constantly reverting to instinct. Lots of dry land practice to get the mechanics might be in order here. So instead they pull down on the paddle, which lifts their head, le sword de la double edge is complete, and plop they go back into the water again. If only they could let go of the idea of trying to roll up at all, and instead relax and focus on trying to perfect the actual movement they need to be doing, they would have more success.

Yes, they might swim a lot as they get used to practicing, but they need to take a step back, stop trying to roll, and instead perfect the movement. The effortless sweep of the paddle – which I might add is as a RESULT of the torso rotation and NOT moving the arms on their own in isolation (another big mistake people make) – the head following the paddle and such like.

But DO NOT under any circumstances try to roll and bring the boat back up. Because as soon as you do that you WILL try and force it. You are learning a movement, not a roll. But what you will find is that if you do the movement right, you will just come up. But as I say, you should not actually try and do that. Just don’t.

Having said that, it is good to purposefully do completely the wrong movements occasionally to remind yourself of what ‘wrong’ feels like and what you shouldn’t be doing, in between trying the ‘good’ motions.

Improving the roll

Once you can roll okay on the flat though, then you need to improve it and make it a practical one. Rolling on the flat is like practicing how to punch against a bag in boxing or martial arts. That’s all very well, but learning how to hit a moving, unwilling opponent in application is a different matter altogether.

There are many weird and wonderful ways that have been come up with over the years to improve the roll. Of course most of these come from the very practical perspective that when you need to roll on the river it is when you least expect it, and you won’t be in a nice set up position.

These range from the cheeky – pushing people over when they least expect it, on flat water or a swimming pool I should add – through to elaborate schemes using ropes to simulate white water in a swimming pool.

All very nice and valid practice, and especially good in the winter when swim after swim is not the nicest prospect.

But there’s no substitute for going over in actual white water. Often paddlers will go out into the flow and flop over on purpose to practice a white water roll. Usually using the good old ‘set up position’. This is okay, but it is hardly an unexpected roll. A more valid variation is to go over and wait and see how long you can wait before trying a roll. This is good for underwater confidence, and one that I can hypocritically admit I haven’t practiced much. But should.

Go over a lot… In the right way

The best way to practice and get better at a roll is simply to go over a lot. But go over a lot unexpectedly, in white water. How do we do this? It probably isn’t the best plan, for instance, to purposefully throw yourself over on the Middle Graveyard or Fingers on the Tryweryn repeatedly for instance. If you did it would certainly be the school of hard knocks. It isn’t practical, nor I would argue, safe, to do this.

Instead, and I can hear the groans already from people I know, the solution is this. Get a playboat and start playboating. That big hefty creek boat simply isn’t going to give you enough unexpected going over experience in a safe environment to make a meaningful reliability improvement unless you are a natural.

Let’s put this into a bit of perspective. If you only paddle a creek boat on grade 2 and 3, if you are a competent paddler you may never go over. Your roll, or what you have of it, will go very rusty indeed. And no, bashing one out at the beginning of each trip doesn’t count. Even if you are prone to going over you may still only go over one to three times per trip.

On the other hand, if you playboat, it doesn’t matter how expert you are, you will still go over and have to roll up. A lot. And it solves that other problem of contrived roll practice in that you’ll be wet and knackered. As real as it gets.

Even in a short morning of playing in a wave or hole, you will be going over multiples of times more than any average river trip. And you’ll be doing so in a relatively safe environment, because the best park and play areas generally just have an area of flat behind them after the boils and wave train.

You don’t even have to have a playboat. You can play around in your creek boat if that’s all you have. However all I will say is that you will get much more feedback for your balance, trim, oh and fun levels, if you have a dedicated boat. Too tall and lanky to fit in a playboat? Not really an excuse given how tall the likes of Pringle and Benny Marr etc are! And they manage just fine! Well then get an older school slicey boat. They cost next to nothing on the used market.

But the key message here, no matter what boat you have, is to start playing in it. You won’t just develop your roll, but with a focus on good technique you will make big improvements to your paddling skills in many other areas as well and taking the mystery out of features such as holes.

Just have fun

One last point. A lot of paddlers are focussed on their roll as a sign of being competent kayaker. Yes, trips are made a lot safer if you have a reliable roll, but it isn’t the be all and end all of paddling. This is why I emphasise getting out in a playboat. You are having a fun day in a kayak where going over a lot is simply part and parcel of it, and as a result you will simply make improvements naturally, while at the same time making many other, just as valid, and fun, achievements.

Fun fact: One of the main pioneers of surfing in the UK couldn’t swim.

NB: I’m not perfect myself by any stretch.

10 comments on “How to improve the roll

  1. Why would you say the torso is bouyant? I’d say mine stays still and down even in a bouyancy aid until it gets pulled up by something. Tried just hip flicking upside down and nothing moves except the boat. Play boats only work for good paddlers they are very hard to roll and don’t help with confidence at all. Mines going after it’s last outing making up the boat numbers in the scouts pool session.

    1. kayakjournal says:

      Sarah, your body is buoyant even without a PFD (have you never tried floating in a swimming pool?) Of course if you are straight down vertical upside down you are not going to be able to perform the rolling motion! But when you are out to the side of your kayak as you would be when you are about to perform a roll, and you perform the sweep or C to C motion, it is the buoyancy of your torso along with any natural resistance from the paddle in the water that allows the purchase to allow the boat to roll. If there was no resistance by your body (ie buoyancy), then no kayak roll would be possible.

      Regarding your playboat comments, I’m afraid I cannot possibly disagree with you more, and if you don’t mind me saying, your attitude seems to be incredibly negative and self defeating. They work for all levels of paddler, not just advanced people, and in fact they are most often more easy to roll than the big creek boats. A good portion of the best paddlers in the world that you see made their beginnings in playboats. I do not know what playboat you were in (Jed?) but you are flat out wrong for the most part. My partner, Emily, had absolutely zero confidence in her roll, and was swimming all the time. Until she got in my old G-Force. In a matter of weeks she was hitting her roll almost every time, surfing on waves, and her confidence sky rocketed. And she’s stuck with play boating ever since. She’s just one example of many I have encountered who made made big strides in their boating from getting into a freestyle boat.

      1. Although I’m wrong about the rolling, I went the exact opposite way after trying a playboat. Paddling it is fine I could move it around on LV as well as the burn after an hour and actually had more success at Cardiff but rolling it is 10% just about up in the pool from set up not a chance for real. Completely misses the point of a playboat if you spend your time making sure it stays upright. Small Molan in need of a new home and I borrowed a XS rockstar for a pool session. Neither worked well even though I could get the burn upright reliably before. After that even the burn became a problem to roll as it wrecked my confidence. It isn’t actually that good a roll but it does work. Tried the playboat again and had the same effect, bad technique combined with a weak of hip flick and after a few tries a bonus of plummetting confidence. Hopefully going back to the burn will be ok. Not worth trying again as it isn’t giving the result wanted.

        I agree that switching to a play boat can make a huge difference and would never tell anyone not to try it. In fact totally the opposite but I would never tell them it’s going to work as it really isn’t guaranteed either. Wouldn’t warn them it could be a bad choice as thats seriously unhelpful. I think a lot of my type of paddler* never uses a playboat as they realise that it’s not a good idea. Watching others made me try it the reality is it isn’t for me.

        Most of the best paddlers are naturals. They have worked very hard on top of that and would have been better after a year than I will ever be. A playboat would make sense if you can learn positive things from using it and you enjoy it. They would have got in it, rolled it, learnt their first trick, rolled it using a different roll while I was still trying to get it to roll at all,

        * I always ask the question would you go down this bit of water with a group of your clones. Nothing above G1 by ourselves. Get led down 2/3 and walk round anything 3+

      2. kayakjournal says:

        Sarah, it sounds to me like you simply need much more practice, especially in a live environment. There may be other things going on with your roll too. If you can roll the Burn up effortlessly then the playboat should be just as easy, if not easier. Especially a Rockstar! It’s one of the easiest boats possible to roll, as are most Jackson boats. The reality though is that with good technique all boats should be just as easy to roll, it’s just that some require different timings. But as a whole it simply sounds as if you’ve given up before you’ve even started. Which is why I advocate flat water playboat practice simply because you will be going over in all positions.

        You mentioned a weak hip flick, but if you had read the article you would realise that the rolls can all be performed very slowly, and that movements such as the sweep roll, when done properly, are designed such to engage the proper muscles and movement by default. You shouldn’t need to ‘muscle’ a hip flick at all. All of which says to me that you might be trying to force the roll, rather than for instance following my advice and not trying to roll at all. Simply perform a movement.

        You stated “Most of the best paddlers are naturals.” Are they? Some may have a natural athletic gift, but most of them have had to work hard constantly. But I’m not sure what they have to do with the price of cheese? Your example of them doing tricks before you got your first ever roll is incredibly self defeating. So what if it takes you longer? They key to improvement is actually discovering what you are doing wrong, and modifying it accordingly. As Yoda would say, there is no can’t, only do. If you’ve told yourself you will do something, no matter how long it takes, you will do it. If you think you will never achieve something, then you will never achieve it.

      3. 2 Roll is dodgy, no faith in it. 1 if I fall over unexpectedly I bail faster than anyone. 2 is going somewhere, seem to have been convinced learning to backdeck roll is better than undoing 4 years of its ment to be a sweep roll issues. 1 well I managed 3 seconds which is amazing for me. Then I swam which is normal.

      4. kayakjournal says:

        You’ve got to take a step back and look at the real issues here. Your problem isn’t that you can’t roll, it’s that you lack underwater confidence. This is where your focus should be. You need to forget the roll totally for the time being and focus entirely on being comfortable hanging out upside down. Because unless you can do that it will affect everything, including how you are approaching the roll. You need to start small. Go over for a few seconds, bail or T-rescue, doesn’t matter which. Stay relaxed. Try again. Build up the time. When you can do that without panicking, go to a feature and go over, see if you can hang out there too. Bail. Make yourself familiar with the underwater part. And don’t tell me you can’t do that, because you absolutely can. It’s now summer, so it’s the best time to do this. Set yourself a simple aim of, say 20 seconds underwater (it could be 15 seconds, the target to aim for is up to you) by the end of summer by going over in a small feature. No roll aims, just get comfortable underwater.

      5. This week the only upside down moment i’ve managed has been a 15 second dunking holding the bow of a nervous (stuck in boat unable to get deck off scare) paddler. I don’t think he believed any of us that I’m nervous too 🙂 Not sure how silly this question is but why is it easier when I’m ‘in charge’ rather than doing it for myself?

  2. Jimi Nixon says:

    I think your info is great! I’m a rolling god and I’ve learned something to try out from your article. As to commentary about play boats, I 2nd you: A Playboat is THE way to really become a good paddler. I will say I started with a play boat that I couldn’t handle, got rid of it and got a Inazone 230. Got pretty decent in that, and then wished I’d kept the playboat. Since then, I’ve gotten a few playboats, most notably the Wavesport Project 45 (old). I’ve demo’d a Rockstar, and when my Project dies, that’ll be my next playboat for sure. It goes down with just a snap of the fingers. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve told to get in a playboat and learn their class 2-3 river in that and really play it. The few that have taken the advice have become good paddlers. The ones that didn’t generally stayed class 2-3 boaters. You have to be active and take the bull by the horns in WW kayaking for sure.

    1. Summer is over and after as many tries as I could, I’m fine holding onto a boat or even touching it but still panic if separated or at best just give up on waiting after a few seconds. At least I tried to tap after real capsizes but no successful rescues as I still bail too fast. Difficult to avoid rolling as everyone is convinced I can so don’t see the point of stepping back. Pretty sure it’s got worse technique wise and however hard I try to remember to do all the important things it goes straight back to throw the paddle round and hope. Just trying to sweep it out and forget about rolling falls foul of this plus no-one seems to understand what I’m trying to do. Last try showed paddle not out of the water, punching, wrong blade angle with a consequence of massive head raising and some nasty panicked rescues. I managed to suppress the panic and urge to bail but it actually feels worse than just bailing making me even less comfortable with being upside down.

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